May Musings - 20

It’s nice to have gotten into a writing rhythm. I’m not always sure what I will write about, but it’s nice to be forced into the discipline for a bit.

I recently watched the film, Mary: Queen of Scots. Have you seen it? I’ve never traditionally had much interest in films and TV on English monarchs, it feels a little unfaithful to suspend disbelief and enjoy the entertainment without thinking about the bloodshed and havoc the various reigns were responsible for. What was interesting about this film however, was the focus on two female monarchs with very different attitudes on monarchy, marriage and their crowns.

I recommend the watch, if only for Saoirse Ronan as Mary. Her ability to so completely inhabit the persona of the monarch makes for a powerful performance. Hers is a character who is so willing to serve and give her life for her people, but who also so deeply believes that these people are her subjects. She is their Queen, and expects the accordant deference. Juxtaposing Ronan alongside Margo Robbie’s Elizabeth the First didn’t do Robbie’s character a huge favour; the protagonist was very clearly Mary. But the film did give some insight into the challenge of being not only a monarch, but a female one at that, in a court where literally everyone around you is plotting and scheming in some manner. ‘A lonely job’ doesn’t do the isolation of that position justice. It would have been utterly exhausting.

I have such mixed feelings about monarchy, brought into sharp relief now that I live in the heart of the empire: London. I am confronted with regular news of this land’s Royals on a daily basis - the very same descendants of those in the film. How is it a moral or ethical system? Do we accept it because of their ‘tourism value’, as one Brit told me, or because ‘they are the true essence of the country’? I’ve been told the Queen holds the country together, and is at least the one thing people can believe in above the mess of Parliament. Perhaps these attitudes are credit to this particular Queen rather than the institution itself.

I find myself instinctively uncomfortable with the concept of monarchy, but who am I but an uncivilised Sudanese Australian, a double colonial subject? Either way, I am still not of this land. Perhaps it makes no difference what I think about it at all.

May Musings - 08

Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

I write to you from the city of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. I’m on a rare excursion to a new country for the main purpose of pleasure rather than business: a privilege I treasure, Alhamdulilah, and one that I am lapping up with rich delight. It’s my first trip to a post-Soviet nation; an introduction to a whole new history which I know embarrassing little about. I look forward to that changing, inshallah!

Tonight won’t be the night I write about Georgia, however. Partially, this is due to only really having spent a few hours walking around the city, and what does one know of a place after only a few hours bar superficial observations like ‘people stare a lot’? I mean, girl - when you’re wearing bright mustard trousers and white sunglasses, what do you expect?

No. Today I write about two things on my mind. One, this brilliant article on the Castor Semenya case, written by a woman who formerly raced against her:

I competed for Australia in the 800m against Semenya at the 2009 World Athletics Championships in Berlin. Today I am convinced that the court of arbitration for sport’s decision to endorse rules aimed at excluding Semenya and other women athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone is the wrong one.

The author talks about how she initially was in favour of the decision to exclude Semenya, but later changed her mind, as a result of her sociology studies, an education in the history of these sorts of exclusions, and befriending women who have naturally high testosterone. Key was this final point, and it reminded me that nothing creates empathy and the potential to change minds like the deep simplicity of human connection. She goes on to say:

As a sociologist, I have now spent several years immersed in this  issue, interviewing elite track-and-field stakeholders from around the  world including athletes, coaches, officials, managers, team staff and  media personnel. In their accounts I have seen so many echoes of my own  experience in Berlin: an astounding lack of information, an absence of  alternative viewpoints, a fear of the unknown, weak leadership from  national and international governing bodies, and a stubborn refusal to  dig a little deeper and reflect critically on where their views come  from and what biases might be underlying them. The path of least  resistance is to turn away from information and perspectives that might  undermine one’s investment in the simplistic notion that sex is binary  and testosterone is unfair (at least in women).

A worthwhile piece, I thought. Check the rest out here. What do you think about the decision?

***

The second thing on my mind is related to an experience from this afternoon at a local Georgian mosque. I had no idea I’d find one, given the country is largely Orthodox. Perhaps, I thought, they might have a hostile attitude towards other faiths. On the contrary, the mosque had a clear sign pointing to it from the main street in the old town, loud and for all to see. Off I traipsed, hoping to catch the Maghrib prayer before the time was up.

At the front of the mosque stood a man who I immediately understood found me an object of interest. I quickly queried the whereabouts of the women’s wudhu section and after providing directions, he followed up with asking whether or not I was married, where I was from, and whether or not there would be a chance of hanging out the next day. I learnt he was a football player who’d lived in the city for two years, but he had obviously found it tough, especially during a month like Ramadan. So I was sympathetic to the idea that he was looking for friends. But it was also clear that he was interested in more, and this was a sentiment I neither shared, or was willing to entertain.

Herein lies the rub: in a simple world, I’d love to be able to help a Muslim brother out. I’d love to feel like I could make connections with folk on my travels who share the same faith and the same love of a football club (Liverpool!). But so often, I find myself forced to choose between my urge to connect with a fellow from the Ummah and my safety as a woman. Even more tragic is when the individual is a man of colour, as this man was, because my urge is to think well, life in Georgia must be lonely, and it’s hard to find community at the best of times…!

Ah, the interaction underscored the complications of living at intersections. It reminded me why the concept of intersectionality is so useful. Intersectionality names the challenge of say, being an Arab speaking, black, Muslim woman. The culmination of all these identities reveals that an appraisal of the world through each one of those lenses alone is not nearly enough to understand it’s complex lived reality.

***

In the end, I bid the man a farewell and kept him in my prayers. That’s all the capacity I have for the moment. Khair, inshallah. But it’s certainly a stark reminder of how much longer we have to go.

***

The old town

The old town

Huffington Post: #JusticeForNoura

Huffington Post: #JusticeForNoura

What do we know about Noura Hussein? The 19-year-old Sudanese woman is currently on death row in Omdurman, Sudan, for killing a man in self-defense. She was convicted of murdering her husband, who raped her on their “honeymoon.”

GUEST APPEARANCE ON GUILTY FEMINIST PODCAST

Screenshot 2018-04-24 16.49.00.png

I joined Deborah Frances-White and Susan Wokoma for an entertaining and impassioned edition of the fabulous podcast, The Guilty Feminist. Also a guest on the show was the inspiring co-founder of Legally Black UK, Liv Francis-Cornibert.

Check it out!

 

 

Interview with Investment Magazine on Unconscious Bias

Yassmin Abdel-Magied delivering the Mavis Robertson address via Investment Magazine

Yassmin Abdel-Magied delivering the Mavis Robertson address via Investment Magazine

I was honoured to present the Mavis Robertson address at the Conference of Major Superannuation Funds in Brisbane this year.  As part of the engagement, I answered a few questions for Investment Magazine on #BeatingBias. Here is some of what I said:


In your 2014 TED Talk, you make the point that acknowledging unconscious bias is “not an accusation”. Do you find many people still resist discussions about beating unconscious bias and get defensive?

In 2014, unconscious bias was a relatively new concept in the corporate world. Today, I think many people are aware of its existence, but rather than be outwardly defensive, sometimes they think it is an excuse for biased behaviour – as in, ‘Oh well, I am biased, there is nothing I can do about it.’ The other thing I often hear is people saying that they aren’t biased, and then immediately follow it up with a statement or question that demonstrates the exact bias they were trying to deny. Sometimes those who think they are the least biased are the ones with the most deeply entrenched ways of seeing the world.

How do you suggest people start the process of identifying their own unconscious biases?

It starts with being open to the idea that we are all biased, and that all of us need to go through processes of identifying and acknowledging the biases that we hold. It’s about asking ourselves about every single assumption we make and then questioning why we have made that assumption – where has the information come from, and is there space for that assumption to change? If we have a gut feeling someone is going to be a good leader, for example, is it because they have actually demonstrated anything, or is it because they are tall, they seem sure of themselves, they remind us of ourselves, etc? We need to be comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable – challenging our own biases is never a comfortable experience, but it is worthwhile.

In that TED Talk, you challenged people to seek out and mentor someone different to them. Have you seen any good examples of organisations doing that systematically? How has it worked?

There are a couple of organisations I see do this well, and it tends to be places where the idea of inclusion is a value that is built into the very DNA of the organisation. Organisations that understand how power dynamics work, that demand that you are on board with the culture of the organisation, that see supporting and empowering those with structural disadvantage as a must have, not a nice to have. It works best when everyone in the organisation understands that this is a company-wide ethos, and when individuals are willing to do everything they can in their power to make a difference for others. That sometimes involves sacrifice and discomfort, but when people believe in a goal that is bigger than themselves, it works out well.

What is your advice for someone who knows there is a problem with unconscious bias within their organisation but feels they are not senior enough to lead change?

Leading conversations at a peer-to-peer level is incredibly important and powerful, so that should not be underestimated. Cultural changes need to be both top down and bottom up, so finding ways to stimulate the grassroots conversation can be a stepping stone to broader understanding within the organisation. Also, looping in a champion, or someone else at a higher level who believes in the need for change, is also a good option.

What would you say to any senior executives or directors who are confident they are not afflicted by unconscious bias?

The science says that we all are – even me! The more we think we are not affected by it, the bigger the cognitive blind spot is. The first step in addressing any problem is to admit there is a problem, so I always encourage people to be open to admitting there might be bias, even as a thought experiment. Acknowledging unconscious bias isn’t saying someone is bad per se, but it is an opportunity for improvement – and what senior executive doesn’t like finding ways to improve?


This author thinks talking about structural inequality is 'disempowering'. I, obviously, disagree.

Photo of Peter Thiel  via TechSpot

Photo of Peter Thiel via TechSpot

I came across an article recently that articulated a view I've heard before. Like others before them, the author makes a false equivalence: 

...this idea of agency is a controversial one today...We speak of privileges and systemic biases. We talk of our problems as if they are intractable, overwhelming and malevolently created. Even on the extreme right, there is an obsession with biological differences between sexes and races, about whether one gender or another is naturally better at this or that. Again, these are simply averages that have nothing to do with individuals. Our focus on it all, from either side, is a way of subtly erasing agency. We emphasise where we are disempowered rather than opportunities for empowerment.

The author seems to believe argument that highlighting structural inequalities, biases and systemic obstacles is disempowering, and rather focus should be on the opportunities available.

I disagree.

Now, I must make the disclaimer that I do speak and write publicly about bias and privilege, so it would obviously be in my interest to challenge this charge.  However, it is important to realise that not all norms and challenges are the same, and these are far from binary conversations. 

Peter Thiel (as the article pointed out), a billionaire who was upset at what was written about him in the press, was told that 'there was nothing he could do about it' because of the norms within media. He then went on to do something about it, and this is the example of 'high levels of agency' the author is asking us to consider, and perhaps emulate.  It should be noted the author does not condone Thiel's actions per se.  

However, being written about in the press and then taking that news outlet down is not quite the same as a systemic bias against women, or structural inequalities due to a history of slavery and colonisation.  There are reams of studies that look at the structural nature of these inequalities, and some of them are overwhelming, intractable and malevolently created. To dismiss a focus on tackling structural inequality seems inconsiderate, illogical and ill-informed.

The reality is, folk who are marginalised have been succeeding in spite of these inequalities and biases.  You want to know about agency?  Talk to first generation migrant parents. I was unaware of the true impact of cognitive biases and structural inequality growing up because my parents refused to entertain that as an excuse, like many other migrant kids I knew. In fact, any systemic issue would be framed - on purpose - as an opportunity for growth. Work ten times as hard, because things are tougher for women / people of colour / Muslims, I was told.  The way my parents brought my brother and I up was to believe that our agency would overcome all.  And it did - until it didn't - but that's a story for another time... 

Yes, individual agency is something we can control, and perhaps even underestimate. But talk of systemic and structural problems does not automatically mean that individual agency is disregarded, and does not have to be inherently disempowering. In fact, that fact that the public discourse has shifted to include the structural challenges is a step in the right direction. It means we are shifting to a place where we change the world to fit people, rather than people to fit the world.   

Individually, we can control our mindsets, and do our best to fully utilise our agency.  Not everything is within an individual's control however.  Rather than dismiss that reality, those with more access and agency should do what they can to level the playing field.  And don't say it can't be done... ;) 

Sexual Harassment Comes At A Cost. So Does Speaking Up About It.

And the price is often steepest for the women who can least afford it.

This opinion piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

DAVID MCNEW VIA GETTY IMAGES  Demonstrators at the #MeToo Survivors’ March in Los Angeles last month. 

DAVID MCNEW VIA GETTY IMAGES

Demonstrators at the #MeToo Survivors’ March in Los Angeles last month. 

Why do people leave organizations? Reasons often include dealing with bad management, finding a higher paid role elsewhere, or not seeing opportunities for promotion and growth. Workplace sexual harassment is rarely treated as an issue of retention, but it affects morale and career satisfaction at least as drastically as an issue like a difficult boss. 

Sexual harassment is one of the many ways workplaces are a hostile environment for women, pushing them out of organizations and sometimes entire industries. And sexual harassment clearly reflects the power structures that define our society. It exacts a high cost on all individuals and communities, but the price is disproportionately shouldered by women who can least afford it. Women of color and other marginalized women are among those hit hardest by a culture that for generations has turned a blind eye to the epidemic.  

Workplace sexual harassment comes with a steep cost: the cost of participation.

A 2008 study by the American Psychological Association found a correlation between “work withdrawal” and the aftermath of sexual harassment for black women. And in a 2016 survey of the Chicago leisure and hospitality industry, where the majority of women are of color, 49 percent of housekeepers said a guest had answered the door naked or exposed themselves. The most damning result? Of those housekeepers, 56 percent said they did not feel safe returning to work after the incident.

The system was failing these women. Formal report numbers were low, partly because the workers didn’t believe it would make a difference to tell their stories. In fact, 43 percent of respondents said they knew someone who had reported harassment and seen nothing change. Unfortunately, their fears are well-founded. Two-third of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some sort of retaliation, according to a 2003 study cited by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And although times are changing, they might not be changing for women in certain workplaces just yet. 

When marginalized women, particularly women of color, need solidarity, their white sisters don’t often show up.

The outpouring of recent allegations of sexual harassment and subsequent consequences for some perpetrators have prompted many to say we’re in the middle of a turning point in how sexual harassment is dealt with. This is true for some women, but not for all.

When allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men turned Hollywood upside down, Jane Fonda pointed out the obvious: The women speaking out were being listened to because they were famous and white.

Fatima Goss Graves, the CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, agreed, saying, “Class and race and stature play into whether someone is believed.”

Ironically, the #MeToo movement was started a decade ago by black social activist Tarana Burke. It took Alyssa Milano, a white actress, using the hashtag for it to go viral ― among other white women, at least. We’ve seen this before, such as in the racism of the suffragettesFEMEN’s attempts to “liberate” Muslim women despite protests, and the exclusive nature of the Women’s March. When marginalized women, particularly women of color, need solidarity, their white sisters don’t often show up.

We have seen this play out in the cases of black actresses like Lupita Nyong’o and Aurora Perrineau. The implication is clear: Yes, women who allege sexual harassment and other forms of abuse are to be believed ― if they’re the right kind of woman. The majority of women don’t fit that criteria, and those who live and work at the intersections of marginalization ― whether due to race, religion or disability ― are often hardest hit by harassment. Unfortunately, they’re also the least supported. The eventual outcome is dismal.  

For women who are not famous, wealthy or otherwise influential, socioeconomic, cultural and historical disadvantages compound to make it more likely that harassment will occur and less likely that it will be taken seriously. 

The history of sexual exploitation through slavery has created a culture where black women are more likely to be sexually harassed but less likely to be perceived as victims. They are therefore less likely to report, and the cycle continues. Socioeconomic status exacerbates this vulnerability; the majority (58 percent, as of 2013) of low-income families in the U.S. are a racial or ethnic minority. Low-income women of color often lack bargaining power, face language and financial barriers to accessing legal services, and in some cases, are not even aware of their rights. Undocumented workers also face unique additional challenges, as fears of retaliation or deportation may deter them from taking legal action.

It is imperative to acknowledge that efforts to improve the lot of one group of women may only tangentially affect women in other groups.

It is imperative to acknowledge that efforts to improve the lot of one group of women may only tangentially affect women in other groups.

If we are truly interested in building a world where all women feel safe, supported and able to fully participate in their communities and workplaces, we must remember a rising tide does not lift every woman’s boat. We need to be proactive in our advocacy for low-wage women and women of color. We must ensure vulnerable women are provided adequate training, in the language they are most comfortable in, so they understand their rights. The more educated a workplace is, the less likely potential perpetrators will be to think they can get away with harassment. We need to find ways to support these women ― legally, financially, emotionally ― when action is taken.  

The #MeToo moment will be incomplete if it serves only the white, wealthy and otherwise privileged among us. Look around in your own workplace and make sure no woman is being overlooked. Failing to do so will not only affect the women as individuals, but will ultimately damage our workplaces, our communities and our societies. We will all be poorer for it.

BLOG: Empowering women to reach society’s full potential


SDG 3: Achieve gender quality and empower all women and girls

Imagine a new men’s toilet block being commissioned for your local sports club. The old toilet facilities have fallen into disrepair, and the governing council of the club announces it is time for a refurbishment. The governing council of this sporting club also happens to be all women.

When it comes to confirming the design of facilities, it is unanimously agreed that they will be exactly the same as the newly designed women’s facilities. Those facilities, the council reasoned, had come out quite nicely. 'Everyone' was pleased with the result.

The men in the club were uncomfortable with the outcome but were told by the governing council that their perspectives had been taken into account. Even though no men had been involved in the decision-making process, they were told this was the best solution for all.

Now, that does not make sense, you might think. Why would a group of women decide on the design of facilities on behalf of the men? How could they do that without even properly consulting them?

Of course it doesn’t make sense. That is the point.

The above scenario would almost never occur in real life because often, the reality is in fact the opposite. It’s not just with infrastructure projects - this is the way decisions are made for and about women living in almost every society, every day. Choices that directly and indirectly affect women’s lives - whether as obvious as a toilet block design or as obscure as the lighting at public transport stops - are often made without women’s involvement, and as such, the outcomes are often unfit for purpose. At the very best, they silently marginalise the community they are meant to serve. To combat this and make the resulting infrastructure fit for purpose, engineers need to ensure that they have input from all sections of the community they are serving.

This is one of the reasons why the UN’s fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5), to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, is incredibly important. Full and effective participation of women in both engineering projects as well as in leadership roles - and equal opportunity across the board: political, economic and social - is imperative to an optimally functional and cohesive society. One of the reasons, but not the only one.

Full and effective participation is not only about ensuring societies’ infrastructure is designed in a way that is fit for purpose. Like many teams, the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. When women are empowered and have access to participation and leadership, all of society benefits, and some of these benefits we should not do without.

The statistics speak for themselves

The International Labour Organisation suggests that women’s work may 'be the single most important factor in reducing poverty in developing economies'.

Christian C. Dezsö and David Gaddis Ross argued in 2011 that firms with females at the senior executive level added $44 million to the company’s value.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report shows that for many countries, raising women’s workforce participation to the same level as men’s could raise GDP (gross domestic product) per capita by significant amounts – in Egypt for example, by 34%.

The book, Sex and World Peace1, suggests that the 'very best indicator and predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not wealth, military expenditures or religion, but how well its girls and women are treated'. The book goes on to argue, using 148,000 data points over 375 variables for 175 countries, that 'the full and complete development of a country, the welfare of the world and the cause of peace require the maximum participation of women on equal terms with men in all fields'.

So not only does full and effective participation of women in leadership mean better suited and more sustainable infrastructure, which will arguably lead to safer and more inclusive communities, it will also be economically and politically beneficial for countries across the board.

Men and women may have differing ways of engaging with leadership, different leadership styles and may want different types of opportunities. The question is not about how the opportunity looks or presents itself, but that it truly exists in the first place.

At the end of the day, roughly half the population is made up of women, or those who identify as women. Society simply cannot function at its full potential if only half the talent is being utilised. It is incumbent upon us that we allow every possible opportunity for the other half of the talent to participate and to lead. Together, we can work towards a world that looks after us all.


1 - Sex and World Peace, Valerie Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-spanvill, Mary Caprioli and Chad Emmett, 2014

MUMTAZA MASTERCLASS!

I'm so very excited to be telling you about Mumtaza's first Masterclass for Women of Colour: Public Speaking Like a Pro!

Details Below:

Want to learn how to #Slay on Stage?

The Mumtaza Network is proud to announce the first of its MasterClass Series for Women of Colour: Public Speaking Like a Pro.

In our survey last year, you said you wanted to learn how to share your stories in the most powerful way possible. You wanted to learn the skills of slaying on stage, of holding a room, of perfecting a powerful presence.

You told us what you wanted, and we listened.

Public Speaking Like a Pro is a day-long workshop run by Women of Colour, for Women of Colour. Hosted by co-Founder and CEO of the Mumtaza Network, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, you will leave the session equipped with the skills to be the most powerful advocate for your message.

Further details will be released shortly, but get your tickets ASAP, as seats are limited!

TIX HERE!

 

VIDEO IS UP!

Hello all!

It's been an eventful few weeks, and thank you all for the messages of support you have sent through - it has meant a lot.

That's all I will say about that though! What I really wanted to do was share this video of a sweeeeet panel session I did at 'All About Women' a couple of weeks ago with two other amazing writers, Lindy West and Van Badham.  Check it out below!

What do you reckon?

Enjoy your week folks! 

Podcast: Storyology Panel

I had the honour of being on a panel with a couple of awesome women recently at the Walkley's Storyology conference. 

Check out a podcast about the panel below:

Kara in particular, just *says it like it is*. YAAAS!